Filmmakers have always been at the forefront of technological advancement. From the early days of cinema when pioneers such as F.W. Murnau treated it as much a science as an art form, through the introduction of the Steadicam in 1976’s Bound for Glory, cinematographers have sought to use tech to push boundaries and break traditional rules. This enthusiastic exploration and experimentation of cutting-edge tools have helped to make film’s storytelling more immersive and exciting.
The situation is no different today. The rise of our digital landscape has helped to make the tools of cinema more accessible, providing platforms and equipment that encourage filmmakers to participate in the art.
Let’s take a closer look at how the technology of today is reshaping what is possible for contemporary filmmakers.
One of the most impactful technologies that is affecting cinematography is the adoption of remote technology. Smaller high-definition cameras, combined with unmanned vehicles, and platforms that allow operators to connect from a distance, have become both lower-cost and more user-friendly over the last decade or so. This means that camera operators and cinematographers can get high-quality shots of locations and action in areas that would have been either impossible or not budget-friendly previously.
Among the most prevalent of these have been the various types of drone technology. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) not only reduce the costs of aerial photography but also make capturing complex aerial sequences safer for both cast and crew. Producers no longer have to navigate the use of helicopters to get impressive footage — they now have access to small, maneuverable camera drones. 2012’s Skyfall was one of the first major Hollywood movies to make significant use of the technology, using drones to safely and effectively follow the opening motorcycle chase scene. The technology captured footage that included traditional distant aerial shots but also followed the action along rooftops and through streets, bringing audiences a more intimate and impactful view of the sequence.
But, remote technology has been doing more for cinema lately than simply getting better shots. The COVID-19 pandemic had a devastating effect upon many industries and in cinema the need for distancing shut down a lot of productions. However, remotely operated technology was utilized to allow reshoots to continue safely. Tides (2021, also titled Haven: Above Sky) required significant reshoots during the pandemic. Due to travel restrictions, cinematographer Markus Förderer could not be on set. To keep quality consistent, Förderer connected to the set remotely using a 4K Black Magic camera and a web presentation module. This allowed the cinematographer to conference live with the crew while ensuring the accuracy and quality of the shot set-up.
There have been several news stories lately about the impact automated technology and artificial intelligence (AI) can have upon the film industry. In many cases, this is portrayed in a negative light, usually surrounding AI-produced scripts or computers that are making decisions for executives on what productions to greenlight. However, machine learning also has a positive role to play in the creative aspects of filmmaking.
One of the most prevalent areas we’re seeing the use of AI at the moment is in the realms of animation and visual effects. Sony Animation’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018) is a prime example here. Animators wanted to bring a more comic book feel to the computer-generated models and began to teach the software how to add pen-like strokes in appropriate places. The artists would apply lines, and each time the software repeated the action incorrectly, the artists corrected it. The result became a program that could accurately predict the application of these lines, cutting down production time while maintaining a uniquely creative and visual flair to the production.
Machine learning is also starting to make an impact in the editing process. While we’re not yet at the point of fully automated editing — and, frankly, it’d be unwise to take talented editors out of the process — there are aspects of it within software. Editing programs such as those in Adobe’s Creative Cloud use AI to take on some of the time-consuming grunt work. Machine learning can analyze shots to make color-matching suggestions, improve audio tracking, and integrate visual effects. This isn’t just applicable to Hollywood studios. The software and the skills are accessible, with online video editing classes available that can introduce filmmakers to not just the use of the programs, but also the skills they need to get the most out of them. This is bringing the resources that help bigger budget productions look great to creators who are shooting on their camera phones — which can only be a good thing for our culture.
Green screen technology has been a mainstay of our filmmaking landscape for decades now. Indeed, affordable screens and editing software that can easily support chroma key techniques are so accessible now that it’s difficult to find even a YouTuber who isn’t using one. However, in the last couple of years, technology has advanced to the point that productions can move away from this practice.
One of the prevailing complaints about using green screens — for both cast and crew — is that it presents an artificial atmosphere that creative contributors can have trouble engaging with meaningfully. Not to mention that the screen can cast a green glow on surrounding objects. The solution that has recently risen in popularity is light-emitting diode (LED) panels that place a more realistic depiction of the scenery behind the actors. One of the first uses for this was in The Mandalorian (2019). Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) programmed the system, which they call the Volume, to be dynamic, in that the image on the screen shifts in conjunction with the camera’s movement to give a more realistic depiction of the background. This provides great potential for future projects, and how actors and crew connect to fantasy environments creatively.
The continued development of technology presents incredible practical and creative opportunities for filmmakers. Between the remote capabilities of drone tech and the introduction of AI, these advantages are becoming accessible to both Hollywood and indie productions. What is most clear, though, is that these are tools to support the talented professionals behind them, rather than to replace human creatives.